Diver goes missing on shipwreck expedition

Abu Dhabi-based diver Jan-Lars Hanz has gone missing after beginning a descent on a line to the wreck of a supertanker lying on the seabed 112 metres below the surface.

May 27,  Deep diver, Bill Leeman, checks his gear for a last time before entering the water to explore a wreck of the Innes located 70 meters below the surface off the coast of Fujeirah.  May 27, 2011 Fujeirah, United Arab Emirates (Photo: Antonie Robertson/The National)
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DUBAI //A member of a team of divers who find and explore deep-lying shipwrecks is missing after becoming separated from his colleagues in waters off the northeast coast at Dibba. An extensive search involving boats and helicopters has failed to find any trace of Jan-Lars Hanz, 34, a highly trained and experienced diver from Germany.

Mr Hanz lives in Abu Dhabi with his wife Silke, 40, and their 16-month-old daughter, Julia. A friend who broke the news to Mrs Hanz described the heartbreaking task as his "darkest hour".

The diver went missing on Saturday after beginning a descent on a line to the wreck of a supertanker lying on the seabed 112 metres below the surface.

At 20 metres down, Mr Hanz indicated to the two divers with him that he was having trouble easing the pressure on his eardrums. He signalled to them to continue while he went back up to 10 metres. By the time a second team of divers descended 20 minutes later, he had disappeared.

"We think it could have been a heart attack or something like that, or equipment failure," said Bill Leeman, the dive-team leader. "We'll never know because I doubt they'll ever find him, it's too deep for recovery or even a search.

"Everybody was devastated. It was a 10-metre problem that should never have happened given the level of diving that this guy was at.

"He did everything by the book and was the most capable diver on that trip, totally focused on what he did."

The members of Dubai's Desert Sports Diving Club were on a weekend live-aboard trip on a dhow. The tragedy happened on their second day exploring the wreck of the Sagheera, a Saudi-registered vessel that sank and split into two sections 22 kilometres from shore after an on-board explosion in January 1989.

Mr Hanz was a member of the first of three sets of divers who descended at 20-minute intervals. He is an expert at technical diving, which involves the use of advanced methods to go much deeper than a normal sport diver could manage.

However, the problem he experienced is familiar to every weekend diver - difficulty equalising the pressure of the air in the inner ear.

As a diver descends, the increasing water pressure on the eardrums causes discomfort and sometimes pain, which is eased by using a simple technique to blow air into the inner ear though the air passages.

Because technical divers reach such great depths they have to spend several hours decompressing as they return to the surface - and as a result some hours passed before the team realised that Mr Hanz was missing.

The other two sets of divers and those on the dhow assumed he was completing his dive and decompression procedures as normal. His two companions in the water believed he had returned to the boat.

The alarm was eventually raised by satellite phone: Oman police and coastguard were alerted and boats and helicopters were dispatched to search the area.

"We had a minute's silence on the boat," Mr Leeman said. "We went to the police station in Dibba and spent three hours there. They took statements from our captain and the two diving buddies who were with Jan. It's a police case now and as far as they're concerned it's a diving incident."

Mr Hanz works in strategic supply management for the Cassidian division of the European aerospace and defence giant EADS. His friend and colleague Horst Draudt broke the news that he was missing to Mrs Hanz.

"That was my darkest hour," he said. "A couple of family members from both sides have come over and his best buddy is here giving support. Silke has every material support.

"Jan and I were not just colleagues, I was one of his dive buddies. We had a lot in common, diving was just one of them. We spent a lot of weekends together diving. He was the real expert, one of the most proficient divers I have ever met. I didn't just know him, I know his family."

Members of the UAE diving community have contacted Mr Leeman to express their grief at the loss of a friend who would be sorely missed.

"The loss is huge," he added. "We had all the safety protocols in place but it doesn't make it any easier. I'm devastated about what Silke is going to have to go through."

He said the team, which has dived on five deep-lying wrecks that had never been visited before, would review its safety procedures.

"If we don't learn from our mistakes then we shouldn't be doing this sort of stuff."